In late 2017 Nebraska Republicans issued a press release that made headlines across the state. Arguing it was a blatent attempt to bribe voters, they warned Nebraskans to stay away from free screenings of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life presented by State Senator Laura Ebke. In an official statement, the Nebraska GOP cautioned moviegoers they risked 6 months imprisonment and $1,000 in fines if they attended.
Nebraska voters bravely ignored the Republican warning, however. At six screenings across four locations in late November and early December, an estimated 775 people enjoyed watching George Bailey find Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and seeing Clarence finally earn his wings.
But at what cost? Was the Republican statement as laughable as it sounds, or has state law enforcement actually launched prosecutions for Class II misdemeanours as the Nebraska GOP warned they might?
Six months after those fateful screenings, News Growl decided to investigate.
The Nebraska GOP: prudent warning or scaremongering?
Citing Nebraska Revised Statute Chapter 32 Section 1536, which prohibits candidates from giving (or voters from accepting) “valuable things” in consideration for votes, the Nebraska Republican press release levelled some extremely serious allegations against Libertarian Senator Ebke.
“Laura Ebke’s re-election campaign is currently engaged in ethically and legally questionable conduct,” the release stated, “attempting to attract votes by providing voters with access to free movie screenings across the district.”
After setting out the maximum punishment of six months in prison and $1,000 in fines it continued, “Not only is Ebke in potential violation of state law herself for attempting to bribe voters, but she is also putting those who attend the screenings at risk of committing a violation as well. We urge you to to avoid being ensnared by Laura Ebke’s ethically and legally questionable campaign tactic.”
The Nebraska GOP is not a government agency, so its press release is not official legal advice. But the nearly all-powerful party is hardly an institution Nebraskans can simply ignore either.
Republicans enjoy close to total control of the Nebraska’s governmental institutions. The current governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, and auditor are all elected Republicans. All five members of the Nebraska Congressional Delegation are Republicans. The Nebraska legislature (officially non-partisan) is in reality controlled by the Republican party, with 31 out of a total of 49 seats. And six of the seven Nebraska Supreme Court judges, and all six of the Nebraska Court of Appeals judges were appointed by Republican governors.
Considering its vice-like grip on all three branches of state government, an official public warning from the Nebraska GOP should (at least in theory) carry a hefty amount of political weight.
Yet 775 residents of Legislative District 32 openly defied the Republican establishment. Our question is – what happened next?
Mass civil disobedience or folks just enjoying a movie?
Six months afterwards there is very little public information available about the fallout from Ebke’s screenings.
The Nebraska GOP has removed all mention of the issue and its press release from its website (almost as if they wanted to forget the incident entirely).
News Growl repeatedly contacted the Nebraska GOP * for any information it had on moviegoers being prosecuted in line with their warning, but we received no reply.
As this was a matter of election law, News Growl next sought assistence from Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale. Although an elected Republican, Secretary Gale did reply:
“We have no recollection of any complaints against individuals who attended the film screenings having been received by our office, and have no knowledge of any prosecution by a county attorney nor the Attorney General of any individual who attended the film screenings you refer to.”
But Secretary Gale also did add, “Section 32-1536 of Nebraska laws does not provide authority for the Secretary of State to prosecute for bribery. Our county attorneys or our Attorney General direct criminal investigations and prosecutions.”
Following this explanation, News Growl next turned to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (also a Republican), who did not reply (admittedly, our emails arrived on the same day he filed suit against Senator Ebke and fifteen other Senators on the Judiciary Committee regarding another matter, so he may have been too busy).
This left us to contact the four county attorneys based in Nebraska LD32. We requested information from all four, and two replied.
In reference to the December 16th allegedly criminal screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Majestic Theater in Hebron, Thayer County, county attorney Daniel Werner replied, “I have no information in my office concerning your request.” When asked for clarification Mr Werner indicated he had no information at all, not that he had declined to prosecute anyone.
In reference to the December 10th screening at the Isis Theater in Crete, Saline County, county attorney Tad Eickman responded to News Growl saying, “My response would be the same as Mr. Werner’s.”
County attorneys for Fillmore and Jefferson counties did not respond to our requests.
Although hard facts are scarce, it appears Nebraska law enforcement pretty much ignored the Nebraska GOP.
But perhaps biggest obstacle to any prosecutions may have been the Nebraska GOP itself. Despite its unequivocal allegation that Laura Ebke was attempting to bribe voters, the party apparently failed to file any complaint against the Senator herself, let alone the hundreds of LD32 residents who showed up to the screenings. If the Nebraska GOP is too timid to follow up on its own assertions, it is hardly surprising law enforcement ignored them.
“Make the Governor mad”
But Senator Laura Ebke could hardly afford to ignore the serious allegations by the Nebraska GOP when they were first made, of course.
Speaking to News Growl, the Libertarian Senator said, “When the Nebraska GOP’s email came out, I made an immediate call to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Executive Director Frank Daley. I told him what was being alleged, and asked if I had misinterpreted the statute. It was true I had used campaign funds to pay for the popcorn, soda, and theater rental.
“He told me no, that there is a provision in the Accountability and Disclosure statute which allows for campaign funds being used to host social events for constituents.
“He had received no complaints, and told me that they would let me know if they did. I never heard anything more.”
We asked Senator Ebke if she knew of any LD32 residents who had been intimidated by the Nebraska GOP statement, and perhaps had been worried about attending.
“I heard from no one who expressed worry over it. I heard from a number of people who walked in and said that they’d come to see the movie and ‘make the Governor mad.’
“Mostly, I think people thought it was silly. Keep in mind, the Governor sends out invitations to assorted people around the state—mostly Republicans, but elected officials and others—inviting them to ‘Tailgates’ at the Governor’s mansion before all of the home Nebraska Football games. People get to go, eat free food (paid for by his campaign), get their pictures taken with the Governor and First Lady, etc.
“They spend more in one of those than I did in total for 6 showings of a 70 year old movie in my district.”
So it appears the Nebraska Republican Party threatened a political opponent with allegations based on a misunderstanding of Nebraska law. And, even if they had been correct, their interpretation would also have ensnared Republican Governor Pete Ricketts.
No wonder all traces of the press release have been removed from the Nebraska GOP website.
But more importantly, as much of Nebraska’s media was keen to point out, bribery requires an understanding of an exchange on both sides. When Ebke gave away free movie tickets, popcorn, and soda without asking for anything in return it was simply a gift. And gifts are not illegal.
Next week Nebraska’s top-two “jungle primary” pits Libertarian Senator Ebke against Republicans Al Riskowski and Tom Brandt. The Republicans are clearly desperate to oust her, but whether their intimidation techniques work or not will be up to LD32 voters.
* In a previous article, News Growl also made attempts to contact the Nebraska GOP. Since then we have discovered that the email address listed on the party’s official website, [email protected] was incorrect. For this article the correct email address, [email protected] was used. Following a tweet from News Growl, the Nebraska GOP has corrected the email address on their website.